Summer Games: Keeping Equine Athletes Cool

David Marlin, BSc (Hons.) PhD, of David Marlin Consulting Ltd., worked on heat and humidity research for the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. He elaborated on some important steps being taken to protect horses from the worst effects of heat throughout their stay in Hong Kong at a pre-Olympic Workshop held by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Feb. 17 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

He explained that while acclimatization appears to be complete after 10-14 days of exercise, this could prove counter-productive because horses might not rest adequately or eat and drink properly, potentially affecting their health and performance. Air-conditioning is therefore being provided in both the stables and the indoor training arena, and a cooling regime will be operated during exercise.

The rationale for setting the stables temperature at 23° C is that 25° C (77° F) is considered to be the upper limit of a horse's thermoneutral zone--above that the horse is likely to sweat or have an increased respiratory rate. Marlin warned "what feels slightly cool to a human is likely to feel comfortable for a horse."

The indoor arena temperature will be 21° C (69.8° F), lower than the stables because horses are working.

Last summer's test event in Hong Kong provided a great deal of valuable information about air quality and dust control, with air-quality in the indoor and outdoor arenas remaining extremely good, even by human standards.

Marlin pointed out that, like people, horses have varying susceptibilities to heat. Heat-related illness can occur as a result of a very high body temperature or from exposure to a moderate to high body temperature for a long period. A protocol combining acclimatization with assisted cooling is the optimal approach.

During cold-water assisted cooling, horses should be repeatedly covered from head to tail for approximately 30 seconds, then should walk in a circle for 15 seconds to promote circulation and maintain skin blood flow. It might take 10 minutes of intensive cooling to reduce the temperature by 1° C. Horses finishing cross-county may have rectal temperatures close to 42° C (107.6° F), so it could take them 20-30 minutes to become comfortable and for their respiratory rate to return to normal.

Common mistakes in cooling horses are:

  • not using enough water,
  • failure to cover the entire body with water,
  • not allowing short periods of walk.

Pre-cooling in advance of competition might also be advisable and will reduce the temperature horses reach during exercise. Marlin pointed out that prolonged or intense warm-up periods could have a negative effect.

Misting stations should be considered in addition to, but not as an alternative to, cooling stations, as they are significantly less effective in reducing body temperature. They are designed for comfort, not for effective cooling.

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